Success in elite sport is about slim margins. It takes years of dedication and hard work in order to achieve these margins and become a sporting champion. One of rugby’s champions is Wales and British and Irish Lions openside flanker Sam Warburton, not that he would ever admit to such a status, he is far too humble and level-headed for that.

But the truth of the matter is that there are few players in world rugby who have the same level of respect and standing as Warburton, his reputation as a great of the game cemented before he has even finished playing. Having made his full Test debut for Wales aged twenty, he became the country’s second-youngest captain two years later, going on to become the youngest ever British and Irish Lions captain aged just twenty-four, leading his side to a series victory in Australia and, more recently, a drawn series in New Zealand.

Turning a dream into a reality

His success on the field is evident for all to see, but perhaps what is not so evident is the journey that he went on as a young boy to reach the pinnacle of his sport. He certainly wasn’t the only kid to grow up dreaming of playing for his country, but for all of those dreamers very few actually go on to experience the reality of their childhood ambitions, let alone achieve success on the scale that Warburton has. Chance had nothing do with this success; from a young age, fifteen to be exact, Warburton knew exactly what the goal was, and more importantly he was willing to make the necessary sacrifices in order to achieve it.

“I remember I had a red number seven British and Irish Lions shirt for my fifteenth birthday, and I used to wear it everywhere,” Warburton tells me over coffee. “And then one day I put it away and stopped wearing it, and that’s when I said to myself the next one I wear will be the real deal. I wanted to play for my club and country, but I’d always thought that the pinnacle was to play seven for the Lions, that was the ultimate goal. I set my sights on that when I was fifteen.

“Things like jam sandwiches at school were changed to tins of tuna, crisps were swapped for bananas, just little changes like that, all geared towards my bigger vision. Whenever I was training I would be thinking about playing for the Lions. When I used to go out running late at night as a teenager it was that vision of playing for the Lions that would get me up that final hill, that would force me to push through when otherwise I might have stopped.”

Building a mental toolbox

The power of visualisation is something that Warburton has drawn upon throughout his career, from that first vision of playing for the Lions, to honing the skill as a professional player through his work with sports psychologist Andy McCann, in order to use it on a regular basis as part of his ‘mental toolbox’.

“I’ve worked with a mental skills coach for several years now,” Warburton explains. “I don’t think it’s a weakness to seek help in that regard. It’s just as important to develop mental strength as it is physical strength. I spend a lot of time sat with Andy in private focusing on relaxed breathing, closing my eyes and visualising being strong, performing skills correctly.”

Leading from the front

One aspect of his career that he didn’t visualise was being captain, for club or country, and yet he will long be remembered as one of the most successful captains of the British and Irish Lions. Whilst it was never a part of the plan it is a role that has, by his own admission, developed him both as a player and a person. Not that you would instantly think of him as an imposing leader, given his quiet nature, but his own style of leadership has been hugely effective.

“There are a few things that I’ve always associated with being a good leader,” he says. “Yes I have to be positive, I have to be professional, I have to develop relationships with the management team and the players, be approachable. But the number one priority is making sure my performances are outstanding. You get some people who talk the talk, but unless you’re leading by example, from the front, it doesn’t matter what you say.

“If you’re taking shortcuts, getting privileges as captain and then not backing it up at the weekend you will lose the respect of your players. Which is why it is so important to perform and be a leader that people want to follow. I let my actions do a lot of talking, it’s only as we get closer to the game that I start to talk and focus people’s minds on the task at hand.”

Tackling success

“Captaincy has helped me to mature as a person. It’s thrown me into so many situations I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise where I’ve been totally out of my comfort zone. But you can learn a lot about yourself in such situations. To achieve anything you have to be prepared to come out of your comfort zone. It’s easy to sit still where you’re comfortable, but you’ve got to push yourself to be successful in life.”

But what is success in his eyes?

“For me success is simple, it’s about being the best,” he says. “Unless you’re the best it doesn’t matter, it’s all about being number one. Over the last ten years I haven’t always been the best, but there have been three occasions in my career when I have thought I was the best open side in the world. It’s about having that confidence, a supreme self-belief in your own game and ability. I think every top-level sportsman has moments when they think they are the best, but they won’t always admit it as people think it’s arrogant. It’s not arrogance, it’s confidence and you need that if you want to reach the top in any area of life.”

Sacrifice is the ultimate preparation

Warburton is no different in that regard, and whilst he has had to make sacrifices along the way there’s no doubt in his mind that they have been worth it.

“It’s not always been easy,” he admits. “When you’re a teenager and all your mates are going out and you stay at home to train, that’s hard. But I will never forget that moment, sat in the changing rooms before the first Lions game against Australia and pulling on the red number seven jersey. That was the moment that I just knew I had made it. Ten years of hard work, dedication and sacrifices for that very moment. It’s hard to put it into words really. I wouldn’t say I felt under pressure to perform because I’d dedicated ten years to that one moment, so if I wasn’t prepared for it then who was?”

Sam Warburton's entering the field of play and holding a rugby ball in his left hand. adidas, interview, GamePlan A, mindset, success, leadership, team captain, motivation
The moment Warburton was working towards his whole life – Leading out the British and Irish Lions to beat Australia 23-21 in the first test. ©Mark Metcalfe/ Getty Images

Life on the sidelines

As much as rugby has been an integral part of his life for many years now he has never let it become all consuming, ensuring there has always been a healthy balance. It’s that balance that he says allows him to switch off from the game, so that he is able to switch on to it and perform when the time comes.

“When I come home I don’t want to be a rugby player, I want to switch off,” he tells me. “As much as I focus on the rugby when I’m there, at home I’ve got my wife, daughter and dog to think about and look after. It’s when I see them that I realise that nothing else matters, family is the most important thing for me. I still do get really disappointed when we lose or I get injured but with a family you realise that far worse things could happen than losing a game of rugby.”

His success on the field has given him the chance to make an impact off the field, something that he feels strongly about as he looks to leave a lasting legacy. An enforced break from playing has allowed him more time to analyse the game on television, as well as share ideas on leadership and management in the business world.

“It comes back to the point about being out of your comfort zone,” he says of his first talk. “I thought I was going to hate it, but actually it was incredibly rewarding, knowing that I can positively impact people’s lives and businesses with my own experience and insight. That’s why I have really enjoyed the punditry work on television, being able to draw on my own knowledge and help educate others and improve the game that has ultimately improved me as a person. It’s about leaving a legacy for others, being remembered for the right reasons and for having made a difference.”

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